Scholars generally believe William Shakespeare’s last play was The Tempest. However, they also believe he co-wrote a pair of other plays with his successor in his company. One of those was a history called either Henry VIII or All Is True. That little tidbit gave Kenneth Branagh the title for his latest directorial effort. Branagh made his career by adapting Shaksepeare’s plays. In All Is True, he plays the Bard himself as the movie shows what the Bard of Avon might have experienced in his retirement.
Sometime shortly after fire destroyed the Globe Theater, Will Shakespeare returns to Stratford-Upon-Avon. He has a large country house there where his wife Anne (Judi Dench) and younger adult daughter Judith (newcomer Kathryn Wilder) live. His other daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson) married the town’s Puritan doctor. Does Will expect a warm welcome? It is hard to say. He is largely haunted by the death of his only son Hamnet years before. Hamnet, Judith’s twin, died of plague at the age of 11.
The film plays with the idea that after Hamnet’s death, Will threw himself into his writing. His wife and daughters mourned, but he stayed in London for the better part of the past 20 years. Will believes his son showed promise as a poet and decides to build a garden in the backyard to commemorate his only son. But as Will digs up the soil, he also digs up old wounds for his entire family. Anne and the girls may have moved on to varying degrees, but Will hasn’t. Additionally, he has to deal with the legacy of an excommunicated father of his own. Even the whiff of scandal bothers Will.
Now, I am a big Shakespeare fan, and I did enjoy this movie very much. That said, I am not 100% sure what Branagh was trying to accomplish here. For a movie about the greatest writer in the English language, it actually involves quite a bit of silences at the end of different scenes. The silences actually work for the most part; I just find it ironic that there are so many. The end result is a movie about how Will works his way back into the life of the family he hasn’t seen much of for the past 20 years.
That leads to some interesting character interactions. Older daughter Susanna seems to accept her father back right away, but she doesn’t have as much to do in the movie after the first act. Judi Dench actually does a great job as Anne Shakespeare. Anne is about a decade older than Will and illiterate, but she possesses a practical wisdom and insight into her daughters that Will lacks. Anne comes across as woman who loves her husband but is still a bit wary of suddenly having him around all the time.
And then there’s Judith. Described initially as a 28 year old spinster, the surviving twin has some real issues. Wilder really shows some fire as the acid-tongued younger daughter, showing more passion, anger, and resentment towards her father than all of the other members of the family put together. As much as Will mourns Hamnet, the death of her twin affected Judith in far worse ways. True, she expresses some anachronistic ideas on feminism, but I just dug Wilder’s performance.
But is the movie just about Will’s relationship with his family? I would think not. It may be more about Will’s concerns over his own legacy. A son or grandson would ensure some of those concerns. Ian McKellen appears briefly as Will’s former patron the Earl of Southampton, and he has some thoughts on that. The Earl is a great supporter of Will the poet. He has little interest in Will the man. But if the movie is looking into what Shakespeare thought his own legacy might be, that may come from a visit late in the movie from his friend and contemporary Ben Jonson. Jonson, another poet and playwright, looks at what Will has and has some ideas on that that the movie seems to endorse.
Ultimately, I found the movie rather delightful in many ways, but I don’t know what Branagh was aiming for. 8.5 out of 10 theatrical threats.